The Magazine

You Could Die Laughing

What is the humor in Jewish jokes?

Aug 19, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 46 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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'Two Jews, each with a parrot on his shoulder, are in front of a synagogue,” Hyman Ginsburg begins to tell his friend Irv Schwartz, when the latter interrupts. 

Sam Levenson, Jack Benny, George S. Kaufman, Clifton Fadiman, 1952

Sam Levenson, Jack Benny, George S. Kaufman, Clifton Fadiman, 1952

everett collection

“Hy, old pal, don’t you have any jokes that aren’t about Jews?” 

Ginsburg replies that of course he does, and begins again: “Two samurai meet on a dark night on the outskirts of Kyoto. The next day is Yom Kippur .  .  .”

What is it about Jews and jokes, and what, especially, is it about Jewish jokes? The most put-upon people in the history of the world, Jews, and they’re telling jokes: endless jokes, ironic jokes, silly jokes; jokes about czars and commissars, rabbis and mohels, widows and wives and mothers-in-law and matchmakers; and some jokes which, if told by Gentiles, might result in strong letters from the Anti-Defamation League.

What happens when a Jew with an erection runs into a wall? Answer: He breaks his nose. One of the small perks of being Jewish is having the right to tell such anti-Semitic jokes. 

Walking along the beach, Goldstein finds a bottle, picks it up, and—surprise! surprise!—a genie emerges. The genie instructs Goldstein that he will grant him one wish, and one wish only. Goldstein says he wishes for world peace. The genie tells him he gets that wish a lot, but it is impossible to fulfill, so, if he doesn’t mind, please try another wish. 

In that case, Goldstein says, he would like more respect from his wife, who maybe would spend less time and money on shopping and prepare a decent home-cooked meal for him every once in a while and possibly make some attempt to satisfy his sexual desires. The genie pauses, then says, “Goldstein, tell me what, exactly, it is you mean by world peace.”

If I change the name in that joke to O’Connor or Pilsudski or Anderson, the joke dies. Why? Because it is based on certain stereotypical assumptions about Jews: about henpecked Jewish husbands, demanding Jewish wives, and even about liberal Jewish politics. Are these stereotypes true? Only, I should say, in that they tend to be less true (or so we are given to believe) of Irishmen or Italians or Poles.

Two Gentile jokes:

A Gentile goes into a men’s clothing store, where he sees an elegant suede jacket. “How much is that jacket?” he asks the clerk. When the clerk tells him $1,200, the Gentile says, “I’ll take it.”

At the last minute, a Gentile calls his mother to announce that, owing to pressure at work, he will be two hours late for the family Thanksgiving dinner. “Of course,” his mother says, “I understand.”

Put Jews in both of those situations and you have the working premise for at least 50 possible jokes. Jews are rich material for jokes because they are so idiosyncratic, so argumentative, hair-splitting, self-deprecating, hopelessly commonsensical, often neurotic, and amusingly goofy. Not all Jews are, of course, but enough of them to have kept a vast number of Jewish comedians in business for decades. 

Jewish history begins on a joke, of sorts. The Jews are designated God’s Chosen People—chosen, it turns out, for endless tests and nearly relentless torment. (“How odd of God to choose the Jews,” wrote the English journalist William Norman Ewer, to which some unknown wag, in attempting to come up with a reason, wrote: “Because the goyim annoy him.”) Any Jew with his wits about him must assume that God loves a joke—silly, practical, cruel—and it too often seems His favorite butt or target is the Jews. 

Still, Jews themselves keep joking. Too bad we’ve all missed out on what must have been some terrific one-liners during the 40-year exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. 

Ruth R. Wisse claims that “Jewish humor obviously derives from Jewish civilization, but Jews became known for their humor only starting with the Enlightenment.” A professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, Wisse argues that “Jewish humor erupts at moments of epistemological and political crisis, and intensifies when Jews need new ways of responding to pressure.” In No Joke, she demonstrates how this works, and successfully shows that “Jews joke differently in different languages and under different political conditions.”

Wisse chronicles the humor of the European ghetto and shtetl, Talmudic humor, the humor of converts away from Judaism, humor during the Holocaust and in the Soviet Union, humor in Israel, and, above all, humor after the emigration of Jews to North America. Her book, as she writes,